Quantcast

Of Human Bondage | The Nation

  •  

Of Human Bondage

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books about the Haitian Revolution, but only a handful are indispensable. Avengers of the New World joins that select company. A powerful narrative informed by the latest research, it digs beneath ready-made notions--whether of purely heroic rebels or of implacable caste hatreds--to bring to light the forging of new identities and new ideals. While Avengers concentrates on the tangle of events that ended in the founding of Haiti, Dubois's other new book, A Colony of Citizens, focuses on the much less well known events in Guadeloupe. Previously, English readers who wanted to learn about the extraordinary saga of Victor Hugues had to consult the informative novel Explosion in a Cathedral (originally published as El Siglo de las Luces) by Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban inventor of magic realism. A Colony of Citizens, based on much original research, at last enables us to assess the true importance of battles in the Eastern Caribbean, which help to explain the outcome in Saint Domingue. This book also provides an excellent account of the wider Caribbean and metropolitan context. Particularly valuable is its discussion of how French abolitionism and republicanism were tested in the New World--and how they yielded new conclusions when adopted by former slaves and the partisans of black liberation.

About the Author

Robin Blackburn
Robin Blackburn, distinguished visiting professor at the New School for Social Research and former editor of New Left...

Also by the Author

Let's reinvent progressive economic policy, starting with our own sovereign wealth fund to deal with urgent social needs.

A new biography of economist Joseph Schumpeter explores his insights into the emerging world of globalized capitalism.

Dubois acknowledges a debt to The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian writer. A notable achievement of that book, published in 1938, was to capture the momentum of the liberation struggle without ignoring its extraordinary complexity. Another achievement was his skill in registering the persistent, and ultimately triumphant, strivings of a myriad of local leaders who refused to give up, even at times when L'Ouverture and the other famous chiefs had capitulated.

James was a Pan-African activist and a follower of Leon Trotsky, not an academic. He nevertheless raised the study of the Haitian Revolution to a new level, drawing on a mass of sources in several languages. He was equally familiar with events in the metropolis and in the colony. Above all, he conveyed the nature of revolutionary upheavals with powerful understanding and in stirring prose. In recent years his work has helped to inspire a new "Atlantic history," which challenges the imperial narrative and refuses the limits of national historiography. (Another work of Jamesian inspiration, Carolyn Fick's 1990 study The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution From Below, showed slave insurgency to have been even more widespread than James supposed.)

Laurent Dubois's two books further the Jamesian perspective not only by conveying the creativity of the slave rebels but also by capturing the multiple, overlapping conflicts of rich and poor, slaves and masters, colonists and imperialists, whites and people of color, free people of color and enslaved blacks. It has always been too easy to see every clash as, at bottom, about race. But those with a stake in empire, or committed to the defense of the republic, could insist that citizenship trumped race. And despite clashes between black and colored leaders, both were eventually united against the restoration of a slave regime that degraded free people of color.

The title Black Jacobins challenged both the idea that emancipation had been a gift bestowed by the Republic and the idea that slave revolt was its own program. The black Jacobins found something in the ideology of the French Revolution that helped them to elevate and generalize their struggle. At the same time, they radicalized the ideas they appropriated and eventually defended them against France itself. The travail of Africa's sons and daughters in the New World plantations gave their own specific sense to the freedom they claimed.

Why did Napoleon allow the other Atlantic powers to draw him into a disastrous attempt to restore slavery? Dubois cites a note from the British prime minister on peace negotiations with France, in which he explains: "[The] interests of the two governments is [sic] exactly the same--to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the Blacks." It is easy to see why Britain, the United States and Spain, with their valuable slave plantations, would welcome the destruction of the new black power; it is more difficult to see why Napoleon allowed himself to become their instrument. The revolutionary policy in the Caribbean had been a success, inflicting huge losses on France's main enemy, the British. The attempt to restore slavery was bound to make it far more difficult to regain control in Saint Domingue. The British baited their trap by offering to return Martinique. When the British occupied this French island they insulated it from revolutionary emancipation, so their offer to return it with slavery intact was as compromising as it was tempting. Jefferson's envoys were also happy to encourage Napoleon in a course of action that would yield advantage whatever the outcome--weakening or destroying either Toussaint or Napoleon, or both--and would facilitate a deal over Louisiana.

Napoleon later blamed the advice of émigré "colonists and capitalists"-- many of them his wife's friends and relatives. They played skillfully on his lust for empire. He saw the plantations of the New World as a glittering prize and wished to see the specter of revolution banished from them. It was not just some Caribbean islands that were at stake. He dreamt of being able easily to subordinate Spain and Portugal, together with their valuable colonies.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.